Save and grow

Translating policy advice into field action for sustainable intensification of rice production Jan Willem Ketelaar, Alma Linda Morales-Abubakar, Pham Van Du, Cahyana Widyastama, Avakat Phasouysaingam, Jesse Binamira and Ngo Tien Dung


The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the global population will reach about 9.7 billion by the year 2050. Nearly all the increase in population will be in developing countries where about 815 million people remain chronically undernourished (FAO, 2017). Global urbanization, which is at 54 percent today (Statista, 2017), is expected to continue and reach about 66 percent by 2050 (UN DESA, 2015). As cities and income level grow, consumption patterns change, particularly in urban areas. FAO estimates that food production will have to be increased (in addition to food crops for biofuels) by about 70–100 percent so as to feed the world’s population. Eighty percent of production increases in the developing countries can only come from increased land productivity and cropping intensity, given reduction in agricultural land area resulting from changed land-use patterns (FAO, 2011). Farmers will also have to contend with other yield reducing challenges such as drought, floods, pest and disease induced by climate change (FAO, 2016 a, b, c).
Every day, humanity consumes millions of tons of cereals – predominantly maize, rice and wheat – in an almost endless variety of familiar forms – from steaming bowls of rice to tortillas,
naan, pasta, pizza, pies and pastries. Millions of tons more reach us indirectly having been fed first to cattle, pigs and poultry supplying our ever increasing demands for meat, milk and egg products.
Cereals are the single most important item in the human diet, accounting for an estimated 43 percent of the world’s food calorie supply. Globally, cereals also are a main source of proteins – around 37 percent – a close second to fish and livestock products. Cereals also supply 6 percent of the fat in our diets. These three cereals are truly important for global food security (FAO, 2016 a, b, c). 

By 2015, world annual demand for maize, rice and wheat is expected to reach some 3.3 billion tons, or 800 million tons more than 2014’s record combined harvest. Much of the increased cereal production will need to come from existing farmland. But one-third of that land is degraded (e.g., due to salinization, erosion and chemical pollution) and farmers’ share of water is under growing pressure from other sectors. Yield growth rates of major cereal crops have been declining steadily from 3.2 percent in 1960 to 1.5 percent in 2000 (FAO, 2009).
Rice plays a critical role in global food security and is a major staple crop for 800 million of the world’s poorest peoples. Rice is grown by 150 million smallholders, mostly in Asia, where 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed. Asia is also home to nearly two-thirds (64.3 percent) of the world’s food insecure population. The majority of them eat rice as a staple food and are dependent on rice production for their livelihoods (FAO, 2015 a, b).
Global rice production will have to grow to meet projected global supply shortfall by 2050, when demand will reach about 600 million metric tons, leading to an increasing annual requirement of 100 million metric tons of rice for every 1 billion people added to the global population. Average global rice yield in 2010 was estimated to be 4.5 tons per hectare (FAO, 2016 a, b, c), with the highest yields achieved by smallholders in the irrigated rice production areas in Asia. However, the current growth rate of rice has slipped to 1 percent, too low to meet future global rice demands. While the global per capita rice consumption has stagnated, population is still rising drastically. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the global rice demand is estimated to increase from 439 million tons in 2010 to 555 million tons in 2035 (Regino, 2017).
Climate change, the most serious environmental challenge facing humanity, is expected to have far-reaching impacts on production of maize, rice and wheat. Without adaptation and adoption of climate smart practices, rice production in Southeast Asia is forecast to decline by 10 percent by 2050. The rice sector is a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the agriculture sector of producing countries, amounting to an estimated 500 million tons of emissions CO
2e/year, representing up to 50 percent of agricultural emissions in some rice-producing countries and 10 percent of all agriculture sector emissions worldwide. Mitigation efforts, including through wide-scale adoption of climate smart practices, are urgently needed (FAO, 2016 a, b, c).
Today’s high-yielding varieties are intolerant to major biotic stresses worsened by abiotic stress due to climate change, such as higher temperatures, drought, flooding and salinity. Rising sea levels and increased frequency of major storms (e.g., typhoons in the Philippines, cyclones in South Asia) will pose a particular threat to rice-based landscapes in coastal areas. Since river deltas in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Vietnam have been responsible for half of rice production increases over the past 25 years, a serious loss of their production capacity could negatively impact on global food security (FAO, 2016 a, b, c).